JACKSON, Mich. — Jackson Public Schools is returning to virtual learning this week. This is a precautionary measure with as COVID-19 cases rise and students return from spring break, according to Superintendent Jeff Beal.
"Prior to March we were really healthy," Beal said. "Then March came and we had somewhere around 20 students that were positive throughout the month of March. When we left prior to spring break we had 500 students, that's about 10 percent of our population that were in a quarantine because they were close contacts. This wasn't one where they were all positive, but we had an excessive number of students that were in quarantine."
Beal expects the number of people quarantined to go down this week. With the COVID-19 positivity rate spiking, on top of the multiple variants making their way to the area, JPS is closely monitoring the situation to decide where to go from here.
"We took a look at a lot of factors to say, 'hey, look maybe we ought to see where we are truly at with our COVID numbers before we start bringing back everyone into the classroom," Beal said.
The district's goal is to monitor the rates and then switch to a hybrid learning model on Monday April 12. Students would be broken up into cohorts where two days are in person and three days are virtual. They also have a separate, completely virtual cohort with 1,500 students. That allows them to have less people in school reducing the potential amount of people who would have to quarantine if they came in close contact with a person that tested positive.
It's a model that Jackson Public Schools have been using the majority of this school year.
"We really want our kids here. We feel like they do better face-to-face," Beal said. "As frustrating as it is to bring them all in and send them all out the truth is having them in the classrooms, that's the number one priority for us. We want them here. We want them all to be safe, but the reality is we know virtual learning is working well for some and not as well for others. So, the challenge is really how do we balance the safety and health with getting the kids into the buildings."
Spring sports are starting up soon. JPS will be conducting rapid COVID-19 screening tests for their 150 student-athletes. It is a state requirement. This means that student-athletes cannot participate until the test comes back normal. Beal says this will be a good gauge as to where the community stands and what their next steps will be in returning to the classroom.
"We should get a pretty good idea where we're at if we end up seeing several positives or see positives come back from the athletic group. That population of pre-screening kids will give us an indicator as to what we might be expecting or experiencing," Beal said.
JPS is not the only school district going remote in Mid-Michigan. Recently, Leslie Public Schools, East Lansing Public Schools, and Okemos Public Schools decided to make similar moves - going to some level of virtual learning for at least one week starting April 12.
Officials from the Ingham County Health Department strongly recommended schools to switch to virtual learning this week due to this COVID outbreak. According to their press release, Ingham County observed its highest number of weekly COVID-19 deaths since January with 9 deaths last week. Prior there were two deaths per week on average. Their positivity rate is 15.2 percent, highest since April 2020. Jackson County, for comparison, has a daily positivity rate of 20.3 percent as of April 1. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased around 300 percent over the past month in Ingham County.
“Looking at our percent positivity, case numbers and hospitalizations, I am deeply concerned,” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda S. Vail. “That said, looking at our vaccination rates I am really hopeful. We are at a turning point in the pandemic. By keeping students home from school an extra week and using rapid testing to screen travelers, we could turn the tide in our favor," Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said.
"The school districts are really being held to a community standard of behavior. The spread that we see tend to happen outside of school. We see that level of COVID fatigue kind of wearing on our community and we kind of let down our guard. Now COVID is surging again across our state," Beal said.
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